SHEPHERDSTOWN – Two police officers who were fired by Shepherd University in May have alleged in an employment discrimination lawsuit that some university students who were charged with misdemeanors enjoyed special treatment.
The claims were part of a complaint filed last month by former Shepherd police officers, Donald Buracker, of Martinsburg, and Jay Longerbeam, of Charles Town, that alleges they were wrongfully fired and were victims of age and disability discrimination, and whistleblower retaliation. Both officers were fired by the university on May 2.
Both allege that Shepherd officials arranged with a Jefferson County magistrate to impose an “extra-judicial disciplinary process” that directs university students and athletes to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges in order to receive community service as punishment.
Informally known as the “Shepherd deal,” the disciplinary scheme allows the criminal charges to be dismissed and wiped from court records — and skip possible jail sentences — after students and athletes completed community service, according to the lawsuit and Christian Riddell, a Martinsburg attorney representing both former police officers.
The 12-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court also maintains, without citing specific examples, that Shepherd administrators “interfered with service of state-issued warrants” and violated state ethics laws by “misappropriating state resources.”
In a prepared statement, Shepherd officials disputed the lawsuit’s allegations.
“The University has operated with integrity and earnestness to uphold the interests of our students and of the people of West Virginia,” read a statement from Valerie Owens, the university’s executive director of communications. “Our specific responses, to clarify the real facts in the matters cited in the civil complaint, will necessarily be made in the course of the litigation, and not in the news media.”
The lawsuit also maintains that Shepherdstown Mayor Jim Auxer “would regularly intercede in criminal prosecutions on behalf of Shepherd University students, particularly athletes.”
Auxer, a 1969 graduate of Shepherd University and former football scholarship player for the university, declined to comment on the lawsuit. He currently serves on the board of directors of the Shepherd University Foundation, a nonprofit that distributes academic and athletic scholarships to Shepherd students. He also serves as president of the university’s alum association.
Riddell said Buracker maintains that an informal agreement existed between university officials and the magistrate to follow the extra-judicial process whenever a university student or athlete appeared before the court on misdemeanor charges.
University students “were just sort of automatically directed to community service,” Riddell said. “My clients raised opposition to that and it was part of the reason for the retaliation” that resulted in the two police officers being fired, he said, adding he didn’t know what kinds of misdemeanor offenses were involved or how any alleged communication and cooperation might have occurred.
In an interview, Riddell acknowledged that allowing people convicted of misdemeanors to perform community service was not necessarily illegal, inappropriate or uncommon, but noted that an informal extra-judicial process could raise potential issues of judicial favoritism, if it existed.
“We definitely got some equal protection problems,” he said.
The lawsuit maintains that the extra-judicial process was part of an informal but routine policy for the university police department to avoid enforcing state laws on campus.
“Throughout his tenure at Shepherd, Plaintiff Longerbeam was repeatedly reprimanded for attempting to enforce state law,” the complaint reads.
According to the lawsuit, Buracker and Longerbeam complained to university officials after they became aware of the extra-judicial proceeding. The lawsuit cites a specific case when Longerbeam learned about the process in December 2017 when he arrested a Shepherd University football player.
Buracker was fired by the university after he made “numerous disclosures of inappropriate activity” and “mismanagement” at the campus police department to university administrators, according to the lawsuit. Longerbeam was fired for criticizing the police department, for “attempting to enforce state law” and for “refusing to isolate” Buracker as other campus officers were instructed to do, the lawsuit states.
“It was known throughout the police department that [campus officers] associated with Plaintiff Buracker at their own peril,” the lawsuit states.
Longerbeam had worked for the police department since March 2017, Riddell said.
Buracker worked as a part-time university police officer for 28 years until he applied for a full-time position, according to Riddell and the lawsuit. When a younger person with less experience was hired by the department for the full-time job, Buracker challenged the decision with the West Virginia Grievance Board. Two years later in 2018, the board forced the university to award Buracker the full-time position and to pay him the wages he lost during his challenge of the decision.
Buracker maintains university officials sought “a reason to terminate” him and held him to “different, more stringent standards of discipline and different, more stringent responsibilities.”
In the complaint, Buracker maintains university officials used his frequent bathroom breaks as an illegal pretext to fire him. Buracker is a diabetic.
Buracker and Longerbeam are asking to be rehired as campus police officers. They are also seeking monetary and punitive damages from the university for, among other reasons, lost wages and retirement benefits, and for “pain, suffering and emotional distress.”